Jihad is contrary to God's plan, pope says

Posted in Tolerance , Broader Middle East | 13-Sep-06 | Author: Ian Fisher| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the Islinger Feld altar in Regensburg, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006.
REGENSBURG, Germany Pope Benedict XVI weighed in Tuesday on the delicate issue of rapport between Islam and the West: He said that violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God's plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it.

Nonetheless, in a complex treatise delivered at the university here where he once taught, he suggested reason as a common ground for a "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

In all, the speech seemed to reflect the Vatican's struggle over how to confront Islam and terrorism, as the 79-year-old pope pursues what is often considered a more provocative, hard-nosed and skeptical approach to Islam than his predecessor, John Paul II.

As such, it distilled many of Benedict's longstanding concerns, about the crisis of faith among Christians and about Islam and its relationship to violence.

And he used language open to interpretations that could inflame Muslims, at a time of high tension among religions and three months before he makes a trip to Turkey.

He began his speech, which ran over half an hour, by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in a conversation with a "learned Persian" on Christianity and Islam - "and the truth of both."

"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached," the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty.

He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus "contrary to God's nature."

But the section on Islam made up just three paragraphs of the speech, and he devoted the rest to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith - leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict's worries.

This, he said, has closed off the West from a full understanding of reality, making it also impossible to talk with cultures for whom faith is fundamental.

"The world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions," he said. "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

Several experts on the Catholic Church and Islam agreed that the speech - in which Benedict made clear he was quoting other sources on Islam - did not appear to be a major statement on, or condemnation of, Islam. The chief concern, they said, was the West's exclusion of religion from the realm of reason.

Still, they said that the strong words he used in describing Islam, even that of the 14th century, ran the risk of offense.

Renzo Guolo, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Padua, who often writes about the church and Islam, said he was struck by the suggestion of Islam as distant from reason.

"This is maybe the strongest criticism because he doesn't speak of fundamentalist Islam but of Islam generally," he said, "Not all Islam, thank God, is fundamentalist."

The Rev. Daniel A. Madigan, rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the central point was that "if we are really going into a serious dialogue with Muslims we need to take faith seriously."

But, he said of the quote from the emperor, "You clearly take a risk using an example like that."

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said that "the text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam."

"Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II - the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God," he said.

The speech was a central moment in Benedict's six-day trip home to visit Bavaria, where he grew up, became a priest, a prominent theologian and, finally, a cardinal. Earlier in the day, at an outdoor Mass here attended by some 250,000 people, he expressed similar concerns as in the speech, urging believers to stand up against the "hatred and fanaticism" that he said were tarnishing the image of God.

Again, this critique seemed aimed as much at secular Western society as at any other threat.

"Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God's image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe," the pope said.

"Only this can free us from being afraid of God - which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism," he said. "Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life."

The speech at the university was the only significant secular event in a schedule packed with Masses, evening prayers and other religious occasions aimed at Catholics in Germany, where regular Mass attendance has plummeted to under 15 percent.

That low number is connected directly to many of Benedict's long-expressed concerns about Islam. He often urges people not to forget the Christian roots of a Europe with fewer practicing Christians and more Muslim immigrants, over four million here in Germany alone.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, said that Benedict's comments were not meant as any statement on Islam, but only as a small example, at the beginning of four tightly packed pages of text, of his argument of the dangers of the separation of reason and religion.

"I believe that everyone understands, even inside Islam, there are many different positions, and there are many positions that aren't violent," Father Lombardi said. "Here, certainly, the pope doesn't want to give a lesson, let's say, an interpretation of Islam, as violent.

"He is saying, in the case of a violent interpretation of religion, we are in a contradiction with the nature of God and the nature of the soul," he said.

In the weeks after John Paul's death in April 2005, Islam and how to confront terrorism seemed key issues in the selection of a new pope. As a candidate, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict after his election, embodied the more skeptical school inside the Vatican.

Unlike John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger did not approve of joint prayers with Muslims and was skeptical of the value of interreligious dialogue, with a faith of many shadings and few representative leaders to speak with.

In 2004, he caused a stir by opposing membership in the European Union for Turkey, saying that it "always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe." He has not repeated this opinion since he became pope, and he is scheduled to visit there in November.

Once he became pope, Benedict's new approach was apparent quickly: in his first trip outside Italy, he met with Muslim leaders in Cologne, Germany, and politely but clearly told them they had the responsibility to teach their children against terrorism, which he called "the darkness of a new barbarism." He said Catholics and Muslims had the obligation to meet and to overcome differences.

At the end of that summer, he devoted an annual weekend of study with former graduate students to Islam. In that meeting, and since, he has reportedly expressed skepticism about Islam's openness to change, given its view of the Koran as the unchangeable word of God.

As such, and despite Benedict's call for dialogue in the speech on Tuesday, several experts said they did not expect much real progress under Benedict in bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims.

"I expect that he will not push us very far in the way of dialogue," said Guolo, the Padua professor. "He has too many doubts."